Wheat at Any Price | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Wheat at Any Price

Dec 12, 2020

"Wheat will win the war!" / "Plant wheat . . ." / "Plant the cattle ranges ... " / Plant your vacant lots ... plant wheat!" / "Wheat for the boys over there!" / "Wheat for the Allies!" / "Wheat for the British!" / "Wheat for the Belgians!" / "Wheat for the French!" / "Wheat at any price!” / "Wheat will win the war!" Cue the patriotic music, woven into a masterly score by Virgil Thompson.

I’m channeling the classic 1936 documentary film by Pare Lorentz, The Plow That Broke the Plains, quoting from its beautifully poetic script. The gist of it is, wheat, the cash crop of the plains, has a lot to answer for. Namely, the Dust Bowl - the story being that the people of the plains were caught up in a speculative frenzy, mobilized by two-dollar wheat during the Great War, then joining in the general capitalistic excess of the 1920s. Wheat farmers, we are made to believe, were suckers, who because of their credulous cupidity, brought on the Dust Bowl. It’s a double entendre, you see: farmers “broke” the plains for wheat.

If you have followed my recent radio essays, then you may recall that in the course of writing the chapter on wheat for the Oxford Handbook of Agricultural History, I have had to reckon with the negative aspects of wheat culture - its role in imperialist colonization of the temperate zones of the earth, its tendency to disrupt the great grasslands of the world. For me, a wheat farmer born and bred and a culinary lover of glutinous goods, this is, speaking in New Testament terms, a hard teaching. And I am drawing the line on taking the rap for the Dust Bowl.

And I am in good company in my defense of wheat. The greatest of all granular historians is the late James C. Malin, author of the 1944 classic, Winter Wheat in the Golden Belt of Kansas. He depicts the wheat farmers of the Great Plains not as heedless exploiters but as thoughtful adapters, in tune with their environment. Moreover, he points out that by the certain evidence of explorers and travelers of the prairies in the nineteenth century, we know the Great Plains experienced spectacular dust storms before anyone thrust a plow into their sod.

There remains the more general proposition that wheat farming pushes agriculture into marginal zones subject to environmental degradation. Hey, I’m a Ducks Unlimited guy, I’m aware of this. However, the consummate historian of wheat culture on the northern plains, Mary Hargreaves, points out there is a rationale motive for what seems to be presumptuous agriculture: for it is the harsh continental climates that produce high-protein grain of the best quality. “No. 1 Hard,” you see, is another of those phrases with double meaning.

So here I’ve been citing old books by old historians, but here is what I take as the definitive word on this business of wheat and the Dust Bowl. There is a fellow named Geoff Cunfer, a scholar who hails from Texas but now finds himself head of the history department at the University of Saskatchewan. Geoff’s contribution is a book called On the Great Plains, published in 2005. He assembles the county-level land use data from up and down the plains and discovers, popular impressions to the contrary, that the majority of acreage on the prairies remains in grass. Within that context, he writes, “Wheat was and is the quintessential cash crop of the plains,” but over the years, “farmers adapted their commercial ambitions successfully to fit environmental imperatives.”

Zeroing in on the dust clouds of the 1930s, Geoff learns from narratives of the time that the worst black blizzards originated not from wheatland, but from grasslands to the northwest, down from which they swept to scour the croplands. He goes so far as to conclude, “It is time . . . to consider the possibility that dust storms, rather than being evidence of human ecological failure, are instead normal forms of ecological disturbance . . . that happen whenever the region experiences extended periods of low rainfall and high temperatures.”

This is a provocative conclusion. I need to think about it some more.

-Tom Isern